Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Is Wikipedia Dying? (With Parenthetical Annotations)

I hear teachers telling classes this all the time.  I, myself have told students the same thing.  Wikipedia, the online “free encyclopedia” is not a good source for research writing and should never appear in any self-respecting researcher’s bibliography.  The site is good for a quick overview or to cannibalize the entry’s references list to look up sources, but woe to the student who dares to identify information taken from the site and placed in a paper, or worse, one who plagiarizes from the text of an article without attribution.

(The latter is like murdering someone and then punching the corpse in the nose in the eyes of most educators.)

Now all that may be changing.  Wikipedia has managed to get itself a whiff of legitimacy.  But it may be too late.  According to Andrew Lih in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Wikipedia may be facing an uncertain future.

The site students know as Wikipedia began life in 2001.  Today, it boasts more than 70,000 volunteer editors and is published in 100 languages.  Lih calls it the “world’s most popular reference site.”

(Hyperbole, not.)

So why is it suffering what Lih fears might be “a long, slow decline in participation, accuracy, and usefulness…?”

Wikipedia is being undone by the rise of the smartphone.  Lih cites a recent Pew Research study that found that “39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years.”  But one can access Wikipedia on a smartphone just as easily as he or she once did on the that dinosaur laptop.

(I’m still marveling that I can carry my laptop around with me and jump on the old Wi-Fi network with the greatest of ease.  Now you tell me I need to put my machine into a museum somewhere as an example of how the old-timers used to do it?)

The problem is not with accessing information; the problem involves editing.  Right now, contributors to the site need keyboards and a “special markup code” to compile, edit and search articles.  This, it seems, cannot be done on tiny little screens and keyboards.

(Hell, my fat fingers cannot even text accurately on my smartphone.  In addition, my unit feels it needs to know where I am all the time and with whom I am interacting.  Even more creepy, it reminds me periodically that I really need no other remote control or telephonic device in my apartment.  With the greatest of ease, it can run my entire life.  All I have to do is breathe, although the update to handle that, too, is in the works.  Samsung and Apple will battle to replace God one day.)

In Lih’s research, (undoubtedly, some of it done on Wikipedia itself to research, you know, Wikipedia), 2005 was the peak year for the site.  It has been all downhill since—if by downhill, one means having “a budget of roughly $60 million.”  But the foundation behind the site, called, predictably, Wikimedia Foundation, suffers from tensions and in-fighting among board of trustee members and has had a number of exits of key people who have been pushed out by upstarts like the new executive director, Lila Tretikov, who, according to Lih, “has been hiring developers from the world of open-source technology” and who has a “lack of experience with Wikipedia content.”

(What does that mean?  She is the only one on earth who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia?)

Lih argues that the site may go the way of other once innovative online opportunities like electronic bulletin boards and, (gulp!), blogging, an activity once “celebrated a decade ago as pioneering an exciting new form of personal writing” which “has decreased significantly in the social-media age.”

(I’m only two posts away from my 400th; I hope I can get there before Blogspot pulls the plug!)

For those who hold out hope that Wikipedia will rise again, or for those students who are too lazy to go beyond Googling a subject and taking the first result that pops up, (Wikipedia!), there was other startling but positive news for the newly crowned Grey Lady known as Wikipedia:

“For the last few years,” Lih writes, “the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and other world-class institutions, libraries and museums have collaborated with Wikipedia’s volunteers to improve accuracy, quality of references and depth of multimedia on article pages.  This movement dates from 2010, when the British Museum saw that Wikipedia’s visitor traffic to articles about its artifacts was five times greater than that of the museum’s own website.”

(Something is wrong with that picture.  They need a better website.)

Lih says that the museum realized “the power of Wikipedia to amplify its reach,” so they “invited a Wikipedia editor to work with its curatorial staff.  Since then, similar parternships [sic] have been set up with groups like the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that focuses on evidence-based health care, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

(Of course, I’m familiar with the CDC, but the Cochrane Collaboration sounds like a ‘70s all-star rock band and the only evidence-based health care I’ve heard of is the one where you must show evidence of health insurance before getting treatment at ye old ER.)

Lih also says Wikipedia has a gender problem:  “in 2011, less than 15 percent” of editors were women.  He argues that this could actually be a good opportunity for the site to “tap external expertise and enlarge its base of editors,” some of whom, no doubt, would be women.  Then, he concludes (with a little more hyperbole):  “No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the hands of so many…”

(Most of those “hands” were attached to students looking to finish that history paper at three in the morning only hours before it is due.  I would also argue that pornography has done a pretty good job of getting its message, and “informative” articles, into “hands” relatively cheaply.)

All joking (and parenthesis) aside, it would be nice if some of our last repositories of culture stayed around longer than fourteen years.

Probably the most startling thing about this topic came out of my conversation with my summer writing workshop.  “How long has Wikipedia been around?” I asked them.

“Forever!” they said in near unison.

Considering most of them were born in 1996 or 97, it has been around forever, at least for them.  To me, Wikipedia only just arrived as a source for those in need of quick info to write a paper, impress friends and seem intelligent on first dates.

(It turns out, my students and the allegedly dying Wikipedia are young; only I am old.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grief and Freedom

What a Friday for the history books.  In short order, the United States Supreme Court endorsed gay marriage in all fifty states, writing in the majority opinion:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Even as this decision was being celebrated all over America, President Obama was giving the eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine people gunned down in cold blood by white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof during a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday evening, June 17th.  According to witnesses, Roof joined the group in study until he suddenly began firing his .45 caliber handgun, killing his victims with multiple shots and a diatribe of racial language.  Allegedly, Roof planned to use his final bullet for himself but miscalculated and realized too late that his gun was empty.  He left the church precipitating a statewide search which ended across the border in North Carolina when he was stopped by law enforcement while driving his black Hyundai Elantra with its distinctive Confederate flag license plate decoration.

Roof purchased his gun legally with money given to him for his birthday last April.  Of course, this set off the usual talking heads on media outlets about the need for gun control or the need to preserve the Second Amendment and the right to own a gun in America.  Is it ironic, ridiculous, or just plain stupid that in this case we have the right to free religious expression embodied in the First Amendment versus the right to own a gun, which could be used to kill people during that religious expression?  According to the shooter’s own statements, he killed the Bible study group because they were black in a historic African-American church, which adds another layer to the travesty that has become American life.  Racism, murder, religious persecution, gun control, and raging ignorance, all rolled into one case.

President Obama gave possibly the best speech of his presidency at the service.  His rage and sorrow bled through his words and in one, heart-rending moment, he broke into song—“Amazing Grace”—and the congregation quickly joined in.  It was a soaring moment in a day of celebration and grief across America.  The service had barely finished when calls went out across the south to remove the Confederate flag from statehouses and government buildings.  Major retailers like Walmart and Sears vowed to remove Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves.  Politicians across party lines stepped up—arguably a little too late—to urge the flag only be displayed in museums of American history.  The people who disagreed claimed the flag represented southern history and heroism as the men who died for the colors did so out of patriotism for a country being torn apart by the issue of slavery.  I would say to those people, those men may have died for patriotic feelings, but keeping a human being in chains and brutalizing him is not a just moral cause.  They died for an aberration in history.  Do we allow the Nazis flag to fly over government buildings in Germany because it was a part of their history?

So here we are on the day after.  Marriage must be a right guaranteed to all people.  We are not talking about religious views, but civil sanctions, and in the shadow of a country founded on the principle that all [people] are created equal, all people have the right to enter into a marriage regardless of sexual orientation, race, or any other categorization.

People—in mosques, churches, temples, and chapels—must be allowed to practice their faith and study their sacred texts without fear of being gunned down in the sanctuary.  Overt symbols of racist, bigoted views, symbols commemorating murder and brutality and enslavement, they must be preserved in museums so we do not forget their divisive and bloody history but beyond that, they should be burned in the furnace of their own ignorance.

And finally, we need to truly take on this issue of guns in America.  They are not necessary, even for sport, and in the end, we must measure the health of our country over the desires of gun enthusiasts.  The days of hunting are over.  Arming ourselves against those who want to harm and victimize us has not proven to lower crime.  Get the guns off the streets and things will change.  And recent events have shown us that arming people on both sides of the law can lead to needless deaths.  If the cops did not have to fear that every person they encounter was armed, we could reduce the number of accidental shootings.  As we have seen in other countries like the U.K., gun control means that law enforcement needs less firepower to do their jobs.  The average street officer in London does not carry a gun.  I remember several years ago watching a street cop in central London handle a drunk man in a situation that could have easily escalated into violence.  The officers handled the situation with poise and control.  The man was subdued, the ambulance was summoned, and everyone lived to see another day.

It was, indeed, a historic Friday, embodying profound grief and merciful joy.  Hopefully, the events will spark discussion, debate, acceptance, and most importantly, unity, across the country.  There will be great struggles ahead, but we must continue to find ways to make America better educated, less violent, and more enlightened as we prepare for our 239th birthday.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I guess it is my fault that I found John Palfrey’s book, Bibliotech:  Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) somewhat disappointing.  I was looking for the very thing Palfrey says his book is not:  a paean to the libraries of the past offering a nostalgic, wistful, sepia-toned wish for a time now long gone.  He does admit that there is much to celebrate and love “about the libraries of the past,” but he is administering here what he calls “a dose of tough love.”  How can these institutions survive and even thrive in the burgeoning information age?  That is the question Palfrey seeks to answer.

From the start, Palfrey makes clear he is a “feral,” a “nonlibrarian who ends up working in a library.”  He believes the institutions are at risk “because we have forgotten how essential they are” in this age of Google and Wikipedia.  He calls libraries essential cogs in the wheels of democracy, and believes their presence on the American landscape is just as important now as when Andrew Carnegie was donating the funds to build these secular temples across the land.  Of course, in the information age, what we have lost is the ability to filter the information.  Everything screams at the same volume, so how do we know what is important?  Librarians, Palfrey argues, must perform a most vital task.  They must filter information and make it relevant to the patrons’ lives.

The down side is that most municipal libraries are facing diminishing budgets as cities and counties are squeezed.  Because of exorbitant tuition costs, Palfrey writes that “college presidents are freezing pay in libraries, reducing the rate of new book purchases, and laying off librarians and archivists.”

Palfrey offers a brief history of libraries including the most famous library in history, the historic edifice at Alexandria.  He tells us about how every ship in the port had its cargo of books copied and how scholars traveled the countryside visiting monasteries to copy ancient manuscripts to build the colossal collection that was eventually destroyed by a series of fires leading to a loss of a considerable portion of ancient culture and literature.  In the present, more than a million books are published each year with the fastest growth in the self-publishing area.  Coupling book publication with information published on the internet, and we have a tidal wave of words flooding the digital and actual archives of human thought and endeavor.

I have noticed that when working with college level students, they tend to access material digitally through library platforms and databases.  I am in the minority when I advise students to print out articles and mark them up with annotations.  Most do this on their computers or tablets now, and Palfrey writes that in his research, he, too has seen this phenomenon.  Research has become, in many cases, paperless.  Palfrey makes another point that many of the sources for research are now non-traditional, including things like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos.  He also points out that the machinations for accessing these digital sources change at a fantastic rate.  He calls this “data rot,” and writes the Library of Congress “holds roughly 150,000 compact discs of audio recordings” of which one to ten percent already have degraded information.  In short, compact discs and DVDs do not last forever.  In addition, some fairly recent information has been recorded on outdated mediums like computer tapes.  This is his argument for the importance of armies of archivists with expertise in preserving these materials before they are lost forever.  It turns out that books are probably more stable as a repository of culture and ideas than a polycarbonate and aluminum CD.

His solution to the fading funding and the diminished centralized power of the library is to expand digitally.  Already, many patrons use the library for computer access.  Palfrey claims parking lots are full of patrons using the free Wi-Fi even after closing time.  He proposes that libraries develop platforms that would allow a patron to utilize materials from several institutions without having to actually go to the bricks-and-mortar edifice.  Once every library’s holdings are digitized and available over the internet, reference librarians could step in to guide patrons to the best sources from a plethora of possibilities without concern for time or distance.  This would solve space and budget issues because no single library can house, or even afford to purchase, all the materials published each year.  Only by combining resources and making them available in a kind of universal digital library could we move to the next step in the information age.  Palfrey writes, “Libraries need to recast themselves as platforms rather than as storehouses…The crucial elements of the library as platform are the access to information that libraries offer, the expert advice in navigating through the information environment, and the connections to larger networks.”  Libraries could still contain stacks of books and traditional library materials like magazines and journals but these would also have digital copies for day-to-day circulation and patron usage.

One such project now underway is the Digital Public Library of America.  Palfrey writes that its goal is “to establish a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects for the whole world—in the digital age.”  He quotes from their mission statement that the organizers wish to create “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.”  It is quite a lofty mission.

Palfrey suggests observing the way universities are opening themselves up to the world by offering online courses that people from any location with internet access can take for free.  By broadening out into digital platforms, we break down walls and open up archives so that the information is easy to access and available to any scholar anywhere in the world.  Palfrey calls this “hacking the library”; the word hacking normally has a negative connotation, but in this case, it is a positive.  It is an opening up of information, democratically, to the world.  This would have the added benefit that digital access would preserve the physical copies of art, maps, books, and other materials.  They would remain safe in controlled environments while digital copies could be utilized by patrons.  However, for these kinds of platforms to be built would require collaboration “far beyond what happens today,” says Palfrey.

Where I think Palfrey’s writing is less successful is when he discusses classroom usage of these resources to meet the needs of Common Core curriculum.  In this area, the writing is already dated; many states are jettisoning Common Core and as an educational fad, its luster is fading.  He also drops names incessantly—teachers, librarians, and other people he believes are at the forefront of the movement.  His discussion of these individuals is, in some cases, so brief that the name drop serves only as a distraction.

In fact, my one major complaint with the book is that there is a lot of redundant writing, a lot of repeated ideas that should be stated and explicated once.  Palfrey includes in his last chapter a summary of the ten steps to keep libraries alive now and in the future culled from the book.  It is a summation that is not necessary.  I felt as if the book, in a trimmed down version, might have worked better as a long magazine article in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Undoubtedly, though, the prospect for library survival is one crucial to our society and culture.  Of course, it seems like a no-brainer that digital platforms will be the way to go.  Already we can borrow from libraries across the country and have the materials delivered to our local branches and universities.  There is an abundance of sharing going on, and I trust that librarians are savvy enough to know that the way forward is a collaborative one.  In that, John Palfrey is astute and on target.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Scott Stossel's Age of Anxiety

We’ve all been there:  the tightening of the throat, the shallow breathing, the twinge of pain around the heart, the dry mouth, the inability to focus.  It is anxiety.  We live in anxious times.  But when haven’t we lived in anxious times, and before we get too far into our own neuroses, are there not times in history when things might have been more precarious, more dangerous, more downright scary?  I am thinking now of the height of the Second World War when victory was not imminent, or in the late 60s when one had a reasonably good chance of being drafted, handed a weapon, and told to go fight in the jungles of Vietnam.  What about the Dust Bowl, the Plague, the Great Flu, the Great Depression?  Surely every age is one where anxiety might be the right and proper response to the circumstances that threaten the very existence of us.

Scott Stossel, in his book My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Vintage Books, 2013), gives readers a well-researched, crystalline picture of what anxiety means in our culture today, and what he has suffered his entire life.  His book is the perfect marriage of the scientific and the personal.  To be human is to be afflicted with anxiety.  Increasingly, according to Stossel’s research, we are in need of greater medication and treatment to deal with the surge of adrenaline coursing through our veins each day, or is it that we are less able than our ancestors at managing our stress levels?  Life is life with all of its trials and tribulations; we cling to the apocryphal Chinese curse:  may you live in interesting times.  That might make life exciting, but we must be able to handle those times without being reduced to a quivering pile of gelatin.

Stossel is an editor at The Atlantic, and he comes off here in this book as a competent, intelligent man not given to fits of hysteria without reason or inciting incident, but when faced with one of those incidents, he indeed becomes hysterical (a word, interestingly enough coming from a condition of a “disturbed uterus” in its Greek origins).  His is a life-long struggle against near crippling anxiety, even when his intelligence evaluates the circumstances of his agitation and finds them lacking the necessity of such a dramatic response.  Yet, he still loses control—of his bowels, his bladder, his equilibrium.  He does not projectile vomit only because he has a pathological fear of vomiting known in professional terms as emetophobia.  The book, however, is not just stories of Stossel’s battles, although that is some of the most interesting material.  There is ample science and psychological insight, but one cannot read this book without feeling sympathy for Stossel’s predicament.  He describes his situation:  “I am buffeted by worry:  about my health and my family members’ health; about finances; about work; about the rattle in my car and the dripping in my basement; about the encroachment of old age and the inevitability of death; about everything and nothing.  Sometimes this worry gets transmuted into low-grade physical discomfort—stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, pains in my arms and legs—or a general malaise, as though I have mononucleosis or the flu.  At various times, I have developed anxiety-inducing difficulties breathing, swallowing, even walking; these difficulties then become obsessions, consuming all of my thinking.”  His troubles may seem rooted in narcissism, but that does not entirely explain them away.

In an effort to defeat this mental enemy, Stossel has tried all manner of pharmaceuticals as well as “self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes…ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.”  In all the Ativan, Xanax and Klonipin, the psychotherapy, all kinds of other therapies, something called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, nothing has worked.  A stiff drink and a host of other drugs wash through his system.  The anxiety remains potent and debilitating.

The book is laced with quotes, many from Sigmund Freud, regarding anxiety in history, science and culture.  There are also copious footnotes and explanations that function as a sort of parallel text, a Talmudic commentary on the science of the anxiety experience.  He traces human history and anxiety as well as his own history:  his great-grandfather Chester Hanford was suicidal and suffered from “feelings of anxiety and tension” as well as “fears as to the future.”  He writes of one therapist he encountered, a Dr. W., who boiled anxiety down to a single sentence:  “Anxiety…is apprehension about future suffering—the fearful anticipation of an unbearable catastrophe one is hopeless to prevent.”  Other animals seem immune to anxious thoughts, mainly because they cannot get lost in the past, worry about the future, or contemplate events other than the ones in the present.  They need food, water and shelter.  In the animal kingdom, everyone but us lives in the present.  Dr. W. makes an important distinction:  “while fear is produced by ‘real’ threats from the world, anxiety is produced from within ourselves.”  In other words, we seem to make ourselves anxious.  If only we could let go and stop, but Stossel’s argument is that our anxiety is as much a result of genetics and biology as a product of our over-active imaginations.  Many of us are predisposed to being anxious, and once rolling down that slippery slope, there is very little, pharmacologically or therapeutically, that we can do to stop ourselves.

Along the way in the book, Stossel gives the reader a complete history of drug treatments as well as a discussion of the genetics of anxiety.  The latter is a fear Stossel has:  he might pass his phobias onto his children, and in fact, that is already in evidence as his kids begin to exhibit some of the same concerns and fears.  He discusses the different eras and evaluates how anxiety might be instigated by world events.  It turns out that every age has the potential for anxiety.  In fact, it is our response to those events that causes anxiety.  Times were not necessarily worse in some previous era, nor are things necessarily bad now.  Nuclear war may occur in the future, but potential does not indicate certainty.  It turns out we are the architects of our own anxious feelings, and genetics play more of a role than world cataclysms.  Stossel holds out the hope that by writing a book about anxiety and his own phobias, he might somehow defeat them and find some peace.  But the jury is still out on whether or not he is successful.

Could it be that we are more aware of the dangers out there?  Could it be that anxiety is communicated more effectively in our time through the 24 hours news cycle, the ever-present eye of the media?  We have actual news and then we have the talking heads to walk us through every potential possibility of catastrophe.  With so much information out there, zipping back and forth and around the world on our digital devices, maybe we are anxious because we simply know too much?  We suffer from catastrophic information overload.  There is too much coming at us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The world may be no more dangerous than it was five hundred years ago.  It may have the seeds of potential cataclysm in its future.  But arguably, whatever happens, we will know about it sooner than our ancestors did.  Bad news travels much faster in the digital age.  For those of us inherently disposed to feelings of anxiety as Stossel is, medication and psychology might be the only refuge and even they may be somewhat less than effective.  In the end, the tools we have to control the mind on fire with fear might only be courage and resilience.  In the case of Scott Stossel, he has tried nearly everything else, but the anxiety remains.